AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Romenesko Roars Back   

After the messy breakup with Poynter, the media news aggregating pioneer has created a distinctive Web site with passion and verve. Thurs., February 23, 2012.

By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      

Jim Romenesko is scrolling through his e-mail and tweets as any dedicated reporter would at 5:20 a.m. on a Saturday.

Stopping at the screenshot of an ESPN mobile headline sent to him by a reader, he thinks, "Holy shit, I have to post this." He makes coffee, checks a few other Web sites, posts at 6:30 a.m. and sends out a message to his nearly 47,000 Twitter followers.

"How long before ESPN apologizes for the CHINK IN THE ARMOR headline on its Jeremy Lin story?"

About three more tweets, as it turned out. Long before readers could fully process just how something this boneheaded could have been published, Romenesko linked to a sports blogger dogging the story and a statement of outrage from the Asian American Journalists Association.

At 7 a.m., he called ESPN and got an operator. At 8:10 a.m an ESPN public relations rep e-mailed a link to an announcement that the network had pulled the headline after it had been up for 35 minutes and apologized.

Google the phrase "chink in the armor" 24 hours later and there are 5,014 related articles. It is impossible to follow all of the threads of what is now a national discussion of race.

Kevin Ota, director of communications for Digital Media ESPN, issued a statement of apology for the headline and references made to it by an ESPN news anchor and someone not employed by the sports juggernaut on its radio affiliate in New York. The network fired the headline writer and suspended the anchor for 30 days.

It's just Romenesko on top of the biggest story of the day, one marching with an army of legs. One that prompted the kind of immediate action for which reporters sometimes wait a career.

He is jockeying it with the aggregation skills that made him famous and an abiding love for chasing a story. Not to mention lighting another big old Viking funeral pyre for the idea that you can't tell a story in 140, make that 76, characters on Twitter.

Holy shit, indeed.

"It's not work. It doesn't feel like work, it feels like a hobby," Romenesko tells me by phone in the afternoon as the ESPN mushroom cloud was rising high into the air. He is at a stop on one of his regular walking tours of the coffee shops in the orbit of his Evanston, Illinois, apartment. "You know the mentality you have when you're doing something you like, and you're doing it for yourself."

In November, after 12 years of "doing it" for the Poynter Institute, it's clear that JimRomenesko.com is the product of his plan for independence. The site states the intention plainly: "A blog about media and other things I'm interested in."

If he didn't invent news aggregation, Romenesko more than anyone else shaped it into something indispensable for media watchers. Such was the loyalty to him that when Poynter's Julie Moos publicly questioned the method of attribution he had been using for years, the media criticism establishment savaged what it considered a betrayal.

"Jim Romenesko will never be anything other than a hero of Web journalism to me," Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple wrote in a thoughtful examination of Poynter's position. "For what seems like the entire history of the form, Romenesko has been culling the work of media reporters and posting them to the Poynter.org site, complete with often-insightful summations.

"Romenesko elevated me, just the way he did other reporters for small publications. I worked for years at the Washington City Paper and covered a lot of the goings-on at the Washington Post. If Romenesko saw fit to link to my work, it landed on the same playing field where all the big knockers were showcased."

The circumstances of his resignation obscured a decision Romenesko, 58, had made months before, to "semi-retire," as he has called it. You cannot help but know he feels undercut by Poynter, but has been open and professional in explaining his side of what led to his resigning.

However unpleasantly it occurred, Romenesko believes both parties have benefited from his departure. Romenesko is roaming further than he has in years, picking and choosing stories that interest him and adding his own reporting to his customary felicitous aggregating.

Look at the story selection on this day and you see signposts of media issues that have engaged Romenesko throughout a career in newspapers, magazines and the Internet.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and some important friends want to buy the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. The life and death of newspapers helped make Romenesko a virtual gossip column for reporters and editors.

Scroll down a little further and you find a post on the collapse of the Chicago News Cooperative, where refugees of the death spiral struggle to establish a Web news site.

And over on the right-hand Recent Comments column, the debate on ESPN's racial faux pas rages on. You can almost see Romenesko stepping off the sidelines, rolling up his sleeves and wading in hip deep.

David Carr, a Romenesko devotee who covers the business of media for the New York Times, says there is a rough and tumble texture, a vigor to the new site.

"You can see him, noticeably see him, having fun," Carr says. "He's indulging in the things that interest him. He goes on these little jihads. I've really got to say I enjoy him being him."

Romenesko has a wonderfully wry sense of humor you sometimes had to look hard to find on Poynter. Scroll down the page today and there it is. A screenshot of two pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, the sentencing of the Underwear Bomber on the left and an ad for Macy's showing a man in Jockey underwear on the right.

No comment, just a thank you for the contribution and his explanation that the juxtaposition was in all likelihood unintentional.

There was the night after New Year's when Romenesko was lying awake thinking about the now-immortal correction New York Times writer Amy Harmon wrote after the paper published her story "Navigating Love and Autism."

"An article on Monday about Jack Robison and Kirsten Lindsmith, two college students with Asperger syndrome who are navigating the perils of an intimate relationship, misidentified the character from the animated children's TV show 'My Little Pony' that Ms. Lindsmith said she visualized to cheer herself up. It is Twilight Sparkle, the nerdy intellectual, not Fluttershy, the kind animal lover."

Romenesko e-mailed Harmon from bed, inviting her to explain the correction. Romenesko published her reply in its entirety without editorial comment. Readers could decide whether it was, in its deadpan earnestness, as hilarious as the correction or a poignant testament to the Times' commitment to accuracy.

A couple of days earlier, he extended the same invitation to Mike Persinger, executive sports editor for the Charlotte Observer. Persinger described an editorial process every newsperson can appreciate, the correction of a style error by the insertion of a typo. The Observer had given Baron Davis, a New York Knicks guard and teammate of Jeremy Lin, a herniated dick. To which Romenesko posted, "Ouch."

This is a veteran using the tools of a long career to create a new voice, says Reuters media critic Jack Shafer. "The site has more of a columnist's voice, looser, more relaxed," he says. "It reads more like letters from Jim Romenesko now."

If anything, Romenesko is getting up earlier than he did during his years with Poynter. "I haven't used an alarm clock for many years, although I have one set for 7:15 a.m. just in case," he says. "My body clock is set for 6 a.m., and a lot of times I'm up before that."

Most days, he will run through "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" and check his electronic correspondence. In an attempt to get in a couple of miles of walking a day, he often makes stops at several Peet's and Starbucks coffeehouses.

Romenesko's seven-day workweek hasn't really changed, either, just the boss. In 1999, just a few months after Romenesko launched a stand-alone site, Mediagossip.com, Poynter, which had been considering something like it, offered to pay Romenesko to run it under its umbrella.

Later, when he got a competing offer, Poynter paid $250,000 for the rights to the site. Romenesko says he saved and invested, anticipating a time when he could again run his own show.

"I did a lot of thinking and talking to friends and family about retiring from Poynter and running my own hobby/retirement site," he says. "What it boiled down to is this: Why work for someone else when you can work for yourself?"

When he told Poynter last year that he would not be coming back, he had enough in the sock to start his own site with an advertising budget of $0. There has been an ad on the page from the start, arranged by a company called Blogads. Rates recently went up because of demand and plans are in the works to run a banner ad above the site name.

"When I plotted my retirement and figured out the budget for the site, I added in zero ad revenue," he says. "Anything that comes my way has been gravy, and so far there has been a pretty good amount of gravy."

The transition to his inaptly named retirement has been so successful, Romenesko has spent almost no time obsessing about the widely publicized breakup with Poynter. Both sides aired their points of view and, for the most part, took the high road. Readers sided overwhelmingly and vitriolically with Romenesko.

Many infuriated followers have not forgiven Julie Moos, director of Poynter Online, for a long post taking issue with Romenesko's attribution of aggregated items, implying very carefully that without proper quote marks he risked questions of plagiarism.

Very few people in the business saw it that way. Which made it easier for everyone with an opinion to think Romenesko and Poynter would be better off without one another.

Moos certainly thinks so. She continues to have a tremendous respect for her former employee under contract in spite of an unpleasantness she no longer wants to discuss. Romenesko has retained his relevance and is bringing something new, she says.

"What is different? The first big difference is that you can tell he clearly loves what he is doing now. He has a renewed sense of commitment. Longtime readers have commented to us on it," Moos says. "I'm happy that he's happy doing what he's doing."

Interpret any way you want, Moos says Poynter made a decision to step away from an online format devoted entirely to aggregated stories and develop original content more in keeping with Poynter's teaching mission.

Moos cringed when headline writers crowned Andrew Beaujon, the TBD.com arts editor she hired in January to be Poynter's senior online reporter, "the new Romenesko," something she explicitly said she didn't want when she advertised the opening.

Poynter intends to move forward covering media issues with a small team, Moos says. "We're really very happy with where we're at," she says. "I really believe everybody has moved on, and all to the good in my opinion."

Carr agrees, illustrating just how much the landscape has changed since the days when the Romenesko site was the slingshot for the universe of media criticism. Poynter has shown its strength in reporting on the very social media that have changed how all of us filter what we want to know about that universe, Carr says.

Romenesko is now one of a couple of dozen media-related Twitter feeds Shafer monitors every day. There are many more pieces of pie to slice up, Shafer says, but Romenesko is responsible for making the pie so much bigger.

The revelation is that Romenesko is what is driving people to JimRomenesko.com, Shafer says. "He is so much more competitive now. It's like hearing the old voice in those news feeds. We're happy to have Jim back."

In the time it took to put a -30- on this, Romenesko sent out another six tweets linking to everything from Stephen Colbert resuming production of his show to a historian's reference to New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor's book, "The Obamas," as "chick non-fiction." Oh, and a link to another Jeremy Lin take, this one from the sharp-elbowed sports Web site, Deadspin.

Right in the thick of it, and given that it's Sunday, it is pretty certain Romenesko isn't worrying about hitting any traffic thresholds.

"I'm blessed to be doing the things I never could do at Poynter," he says. "I'm really, really having a good time."